2009-07-29 / Opinions & Letters

Midwest Memo

Parsed and calibrated
by Alan Shultz

My grandmother never talked politics. She did, however, keep herself well informed on current events. Back when Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State she loved to listen to him being interviewed.

"He speaks so slowly," she once observed, "that he never says anything he hasn't already thought out."

The recent Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for appointment to the Supreme Court reminded me of the Kissinger days. Sotomayor spoke so slowly, she parsed her words so carefully, that a surprise or an excited utterance was simply not possible. The judge's carefully thought out answers frustrated those who sought to get a glimpse of her thought process and her emotions.

The judge was allowing for none of that, delivering up the most controversy free answer to each question asked. She earned a solid 10 points for delivery and a royal goose egg for candor.

Sotomayor's body of public speeches gives a more colorful and candid picture of her, much more than her testimony at the confirmation hearings.

Say what you mean, mean what you say - whoever said that gets my vote. I don't care for parsed - it's way too hard to listen to.

Parsed words I get, calibrated words, I'm not sure what that means.

Weighing in for the second time on the controversial arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., President Obama said he "could have calibrated those words differently" when he accused the Cambridge police of acting "stupidly" for arresting someone in their own home.

Since words are my tools, Obama had me running to my dictionary to see why I have not been calibrating words in this column space. But a trip to Webster and back did me no good and I am left not certain of what the President meant. Measured words, calibrated words, parsed words - these are words chosen not to enlighten the listener, but rather to serve and protect the speaker.

In my opinion the best book ever written on good writing is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Zinsser says good communication happens in short sentences using action verbs that convey unambiguous meaning.

Apparently unambiguous simply doesn't cut it in anything remotely related to politics.

So much for loyal customers

According to yesterday's Wall Street, the big banks just aren't lending much. All those TARP funds that were funneled to the banks, they are being hoarded back there behind the teller windows to keep the balance lines black in the face of more red ink from old bad loans.

I got a letter from my bank the other day. This wasn't the one from Bank of America freezing my home equity loan. That's old news. This recent letter was from a bank in Chicago where I've had my checking account for decades.

The letter from the bank read like a hoard of lawyers had written it. The bank has reviewed its policy on the overdraft protection included with their checking accounts. Every customer has to reapply for this privilege which will be subject to a credit check, etc, etc.

I called a friend at the bank to see whether I had been singled out or if this went to everyone.

"Everyone got it," said the friend.

Three decades of good will ended that moment. In effect, the bank said to us customers - "get in line, you're all just numbers, now here's how it's going to be."

It's too early in the season for rotten tomatoes, but what fun it would be to toss a few right about now.

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